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MADMAN ON A DRUM
THE WOMAN WHO WASN’T
He jiggled the receiver hook up and down in an excited tattoo.
He waited, tapping his fingers on the sill of the ridiculous little shelf in the phone booth.
He slammed the earpiece onto the hook and fixed his eyes on the coin return slot. Nothing happened.
He reached in his pocket for another nickel, dropped it into the hungry mouth at the top of the box and dialed “0” for operator. There was a dull buzzing. Off. On. Off. On. In calm iteration.
The operator’s mechanical voice said: “What number are you calling, please?”
Graham thrust his mouth at the composition funnel. “Operator,” he said, “I’ve dialed WAterhouse 1-1613 three times now. and each time you’ve given me the wrong number.”
Several small explosions came over the wire, and the operator said: “Just one moment, pul-lease. I will te-er-ry to connect you.’
He had that helpless claustrophobic feeling, as though there was just enough air in the booth to maintain life, but not enough to make it bearable. A pistol shot dulled his hearing, and his nickel jingled in the coin-return.
“He-yer is your party,” the operator said.
A hard male voice said: “Whaddaya want?”
Graham said: “Let me speak to Lois Vincent, please.”
The voice hesitated for a moment. Then: “Nobody by that name here.”
“Is this WAterhouse 1-1613?”
There was another pause while the voice looked down at the phone cradle. A loud burst of music from somewhere outside the booth nearly smothered his words: “Yeah. That’s right. But there ain’t no Lois Vincent here.”
“But there must be,” Graham shouted. He felt so damned helpless in the coffin-like phone-booth. “I’ve called her every night, for the past two months.”
“You got the wrong number,” the voice said.
Graham tried again: “Look! Maybe that isn’t her right name. But there must be a girl there. About twenty years old, tall, with dark hair.”
“Nah,” the voice said. “There ain’t no dames here. Never have been … and for cripes sake … quit calling this number!”
Graham said: “But I was talking …” The receiver clicked in his ear. He slammed the earphone on the hook.
It wasn’t possible.
It simply wasn’t possible. You didn’t call a girl, night after night at the same telephone number, and then get told there wasn’t any such girl. If only there was something besides the phone number.
But that was crazy, too. He’d been seeing her all summer. Why wouldn’t she give him her address? He became conscious of a man outside the phone booth, tapping on the window.
He turned back to the phone and inserted another nickel. Nervously he dialed: 4—1—1.
The buzzing began again. After a while, a long while, the operator came on with that repulsive multi-syllabic enunciation of monosyllables: “In-fora-ma-shun.”
“I want to get the name and address of the party at WA-1-1613,” Graham explained patiently.
“I-yam so-ree,” the operator said. “We a-yar not allowed to give out that in-fo-ra-ma-shun.”
He hung up the receiver and collected his nickel as it clattered down. The man outside the window tapped vigorously on the glass. Outside, too, a loud-speaker was making the evening hideous with sound—music, if you liked to call it that.
Graham thumbed his nose at the window-tapper and re-inserted his nickel. He dialed swiftly: “Minion 6-4849.”
“Hello,” the telephone said.
“This is Larry Graham. Look: You remember Lois Vincent, don’t you?”
“Can’t say I do,” the voice said. “You bring so many dames around. But go ahead.”
Graham tried to laugh. “Sure you remember her,” he said. “You know, the one I brought around to Jill’s party.”
“All right. I remember her, if it makes you any happier. I remember her fine. She had black or blonde hair, or somewhere in between, she stood something over four feet and something under six, and she was either thin or fat, outside of that I can’t recall anything special about her except that I don’t know her name. But go ahead, I’m listening.”
“Look,” Graham said, “I’m down at Times Square now …”
“And so are sixty-thousand other people—but don’t let me interrupt.”
“Anyway, I had a date with Lois for tonight. She called me up at the office today and said she had to see me. She said it was vital. You know how excited women get about things. She wouldn’t tell me what it was all about. But she had to see me. She told me to meet her under the clock at the Northeast corner of Broadway and Forty-second …”
“Look, Graham,” the voice said. “Don’t let me spoil your fun. But my name is Kenneth Maxwell Montgomery Clark—not Mister Anthony, remember?”
“Shut up and let me finish,” Graham said. “O.K. I’m supposed to meet her here at seven o’clock—very important, matter of life or death …”
“And she didn’t show up,” Clark said. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You’ve been stood up.”
“Shut up! Look. I want to get in touch with her, but all I have is her phone number. I called that number, and they said there wasn’t any such person… .”
“Little Casanovas and their little black telephone numbers,” Clark said.
“Listen to me, will you?” Graham shouted. “This is serious.”
“Please. Nothing serious. It’s too hot.”
Graham restrained himself from kicking the side of the telephone booth.
“Look. Lois said she had to see me about something important. I waited here at the corner for her until nine o’clock, and then I telephoned and they said there wasn’t any such person there. What I want to do is get the street address and name that the phone is listed under. I tried to get it from Information, and they wouldn’t give it to me. You got any ideas?”
Clark chuckled. “Sure, Casanova. I got an idea. First you call me up and tell me about a little number you say I should remember—but I don’t. Then you tell me you had a date with this number and she didn’t show. Then you tell me you call her up at a telephone number you have and they never heard of her. All of which is fine and very coherent. But mainly it sounds to me like she is the little woman who ain’t, and when did you last have your temperature taken? But, if you’re really worried about her, why not check up with the Missing Persons Bureau? You could report her missing, and they’d find out for you.”
“But I don’t know where she lives.” Graham explained.
“You are a case, aren’t you,” Clark said, cheerfully. “Well, let me know how you make out.” There was a click at the other end of the wire.
Graham exploded from the booth. He went back out to the street. Looking over 42nd toward the River he could see the red rays of the setting sun glowing on the side of the McGraw-Hill Building—the straight sided one that by some optical illusion seems to curve outward at the top like the surrealist buildings in a painting.
He twisted his head around to look up at the spade-shaped hands of the clock over his head. Nine-five. Two hours.
What did you do when your girlfriend turned up missing? Worse, what did you do when you didn’t know where she lived?
He thought: Anyway, if this business was so damned important why wouldn’t she give me her address, instead of wanting me to meet her here in the center of Times Square?
That was the funniest thing of all about this business. The no-address part. Just the phone number. Nothing else. And she wouldn’t let you take her home at night. You didn’t know anything about her. Nothing. Nothing except that you’d met her one night in Central Park, sitting on the grass at the edge of the lake. She was tossing pebbles into the water watching the spreading ripples form their concentric rings. And you sat down on the bench near her. Not trying to make her, or anything. Just looking at the pretty girl in the white dress.
You’d forgotten how it happened, but the next thing you were sitting beside her and talking and kidding around. And later, around midnight: she said: “I’ll meet you here tomorrow night.” And you’d said: “Swell!” Not really believing she’d be there. But she was. And every other night, for a couple of weeks. You walked through Central Park together. You took her to the standard routine of places to be gone to: the movies, the Savoy in Harlem, the Williamsburg Bridge by moonlight. Coney Island, and the Bronx Zoo.
Then, after the two weeks ended, you had seen her one or two evenings a week, and talked to her every day on the phone.
But that was as far as it went.
Graham stared into the faces of the crowd. Maybe it was all a gag. Maybe she’d still show up.
But she didn’t. There was no sign of her.
After a while a sound-truck plastered with election campaign posters wriggled through the traffic of the Square and pulled up at the curb on 42nd. A horrible cacophony of tinny music began to squirt from the huge horns flaring out of its top and rattled from the buildings.
It was hard to concentrate under the roar of the amplifier. Graham bought a newspaper and leaned back against the window of the drugstore from which he had just emerged. He had to elbow aside several other corner-loungers who were watching the news bulletins flashing in light along the cornice of the triangular Times Building.
It was too dark, and the light too irregular for reading. He folded the paper neatly and shoved it under his arm. He looked up again, at the clock. Nine-ten. Mentally he allowed her five minutes. He leaned back against the building and watched the crowd.
The tinny music from the sound-wagon ended with a voice, dulcet and of the radio-soap-opera variety—said: “WE NOW BRING YOU A BRIEF ADDRESS BY THAT DISTINGUISHED ATTORNEY AND FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE, JAMES Q. O’HANNAGAN. THE PEOPLE’S CANDIDATE FOR DISTRICT ATTORNEY.”
There was a faint hissing sound as they adjusted the needle into the track of the recorded address of the friend-of-the-people. Then the folksy, raucous, uncouth voice of the people’s candidate drowned out everything else: “FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS: THIS BRIEF ADDRESS HAS BEEN RECORDED IN ORDER THAT I MAY BRING TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THIS COMMUNITY …”
Graham and 65,000 other transients through Times Square at that moment promptly closed their ears to any further remarks Mr. O’Hannagan might have to offer.
The recorded speech rattled on and on. Graham thought of trying Lois’ number again. She had to be there. Or, even if she wasn’t, somebody there must, at least, have heard of her. But he’d called four times.
And it was funny, too, that about Ken Clark. He remembered very clearly introducing them, that night at Jill’s.
Ken had been standing by the ice-box, using the top for a bar and energetically mixing drinks of questionable merit but certain potency.
He remembered: “Hey, Ken, give a look. This is Lois Vincent. Lois, Ken Clark.”
And Clark said: “U-u-um, luscious. Introduce me to more of your women, Larry—that is, if this is a sample.”
No. Ken had just forgotten. That was all. He had forgotten.
The hideous echo of the sound-truck thundered: “…NEEDS A NEW ADMINISTRATION WILLING TO SERVE THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE PEOPLE…”
Graham began walking down 42nd, toward Sixth Avenue. The friend of the People was still spouting. But he couldn’t go on much longer. They’d be running out of phonograph records. Graham looked in at soda-fountains, open at the front and crowded. Lois and he had sat, together, at just such fountains.
And there was the bar across the street, where they had chewed rubbery spaghetti and swallowed venomous Italian wines.
He realized he was afraid. Afraid he had lost Lois; that the connecting link, the slim thread of telephone wire which tied him to her, had been cut.
It was a panicky feeling. He hadn’t realized how important Lois was until now.
Behind him the phonograph record referred to “…ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THAT GREAT ADMINISTRATOR AND FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE …”
Graham thought: Supposing the buildings had been undermined around Times Square. Supposing all they needed was the vibration of that loudspeaker to send them crashing down. Would it matter?
And Lois? Supposing the building did crash down? Would she know he had stood there waiting for her till the very last? He kicked himself firmly in his mental britches for letting himself get out of hand. “Like a damn school kid,” he told himself.
He began to walk more rapidly. No point in letting yourself get out of control about these things. Women weren’t important. You knew that. Everybody knew it. It was one of the first things you got to know when you crawled out from under the protective camouflage of your mother’s apron.
Unfortunately it was also one of the first axioms you found defied by nature—no matter how true it might be.
O.K. Lois wasn’t important. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to find her, once that telephone number was gone. She wasn’t important. But he was used to her…
The sound of the amplifier was dimmer now, but not dim enough! “… I WISH TO THANK YOU, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, FOR YOUR KIND ATTENTION TO THIS BRIEF ADDRESS …” Brief, he called it. “…AGAIN I THANK YOU. AND GOOD NIGHT…” That was that.
Graham speeded up his walk. It was as though the end of the speech had put a period to a sentence.
Suddenly he swung around. The sound truck was still going; roaring. And there had been other words.
What was it the voice had said, that other, feminine voice, before it was cut off by the harsh scraping of the needle? What was it? Loud. Clear. So the whole of Times Square, and even the whole of 42nd Street had heard it. What was it? He tried frantically to dig the words up from the part of his brain that had heard it and censored it out with the rest of the loud-speaker’s roaring [like the commercials in a radio program]. What was it?
The male voice had said: “… Again I thank you. And Good Night.” There had been a faint hissing for a second and then? Then: “Larry …”
That was it!
The speaker had said: “Larry Graham. Listen, Larry Graham. They …”
That was all there had been. Six words, and then it had cut off. But that was your name: Larry Graham.
And the voice. It was Lois.
She had been talking to you from the phonograph record in the sound truck. And her voice was hasty, and terrified. The sound repeated itself from inside your mind. And it was clearer now. Urgent. Tense: “Larry Graham! Listen! Larry Graham! They …”
He began to run back toward the Square. Then he stopped. Dead. He hadn’t really heard it, had he? That was just his imagination playing tricks on him.
You didn’t hear your name called out in public like that—not unless it was a contest you had entered, or some other silly thing.
But he head heard it. The sound of her voice was clear and precise and detailed—tonal and vital, violently inflected and genuine.
Of course it was real. He began to run, jostling the heavy sidewalk traffic and he pushed his way through. He had to get to that sound truck.
Here, it was coming toward him, down 42nd. He leaned into the street, running toward it. He could head it off. He’d get the man inside to play that record over for him. To finish it—playing it so that extra phrase at the end wouldn’t mar the politician’s speech. Playing it softly. He thought: I’ll even promise to vote for the bastard.
He heard the squealing of brakes beside him. He twisted free of the path of the approaching car. And leaped for the sound-truck.
“Hey, you! You in the sound-truck!” he shouted. The man at the wheel turned around. He ran after the truck. The truck was stopping. No. It wasn’t.
He shouted again. “Hey! You!” But the truck swung around the corner at Sixth Avenue. He raced to the corner, down the middle of 42nd, disregarding the clamor of the street-car bells, the honking of the autos.
But the sound-truck was out of sight.
He stood there, on the corner, for a second, feeling the sweat soaking into his shirt, and the quivering exhaustion of his legs from running in the sweltering heat.
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